Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why the Path to Aliens, Ironically, Depends on Earth


Southwestern Spain's Rio Tinto flows roughly 60 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. The river is full of diverse extremophile microorganisms. Because of its similarities to Mars terrain, the Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment tested equipment for drilling on the planet, in 2005.  

Humanity is closer to discovering extraterrestrial life than we ever expected — or, at least, life that shares a different origin than anything we know on Earth.

Astrobiology isn't about chasing flying saucers, necessarily. Certainly, scientists search for origins of life on other planets, but astrobiology also uncovers new forms of Earth life we've never imagined before. The scientific tools to do so are advancing faster than ever, and as outer space travel increasingly becomes the domain of SpaceX and other private companies, NASA and foreign space agencies are focusing more resources on inner astrobiology. 

Specifically, the study of and uses for alien-like life on Earth. 

In 2010, geobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon's team found a strange form of "arsenic life" in California's Mono Lake. Unlike all other earthly life, it subsisted on the poisonous element arsenic instead of phosphorous. It was alien.

The science community raised serious questions about her team’s paper, encircling her and fellow authors in controversy. However, it was an unprecedented finding. Even if Wolfe-Simon and her group were wrong, their research helped pioneer a process to suss out microbial life not of this earth — on Earth.

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